The Sierra Club, Greenpeace and Coal Swarm make a compelling case in their newest report documenting the gradual decline in global coal capacity.
Only it isn’t the case they wanted to make. If anything, the greens scored an own goal with conclusions that oddly confirm the futility of their current course.
The annual report found that in the past two years starts of coal plant construction worldwide have fallen by 73 percent, a finding consistent with the Global Climate Project’s assessment last year. But the report notes that coal use is still growing, just not as fast. The World Coal Association (WCA) estimates that coal consumption grew by 2 percent in 2017 largely because China added 34 gigawatts, India added 9 and the rest of the world 18. The “rest of the world” includes the rich OECD countries; not one is close to meeting its Paris Accord commitment.
It fell to Ben Sporton, head of the London-based WCA, to connect the dots for the greens: “Renewables complement rather than displace coal, a trend that we continue to see across Asia.”
Is there a conspiracy to keep this point from the public? We often hear that China has become the world’s leading market for solar and wind energy over the past five years. We don’t often hear that over the same period China also added 229 GW of coal power.
Ignoring the logic of its own findings, the green report prefers to criticize the rest of the world for continuing to rely on coal for supplying affordable and reliable power. To the world’s poorest, this must sound churlish. How dare the Great Unwashed jeopardize the affluent world’s goal for carbon reduction? When greens badger emerging economies to effectively raise their energy costs, slow their economic growth and simply “do without,” we hear the voice of Ebenezer Scrooge hectoring poor Bob Cratchit.
Instead of useless calls to keep coal in the ground, consider another approach: double down on deployment of advanced coal technologies. This offers at least two advantages. First, it is far more realistic. The International Energy Agency last week labelled current efforts to reduce carbon emissions “insufficient to meet the objectives of the Paris Agreement.” Even assuming complete agreement on the timeframe and cost of weaning huge economies off fossil energy, the goal is unlikely to be met by stubbornly lecturing a coal-using world and obstinately resisting clean coal technologies.
If the largest, fastest-growing economies are continuing to use coal anyway, it may be time to make coal cleaner to use. Fewer dollars for Sierra Club lawyers and more for advanced coal technologies.
The technology approach offers a second advantage: it has proven to be effective because it’s consistent with the progress our industry has made in cutting emissions over the past several decades. Aging coal plants both here and abroad are already being replaced by newer, cleaner plants. The trend could be accelerated if greens were less committed to ideology and more to practical solutions.
Supporting, instead of opposing, clean coal technology deployment might even help greens improve their standing with working Americans. There’s a reason why climate change is not an issue that moves the political needle with average voters. The wealth of U.S. coal can serve not only global markets but also stimulate new combustion technologies and help a workforce here struggling with low-wage jobs.
The environmental goal of reducing global GHG emissions is not at risk from coal. It’s at risk from powerful interest groups that prefer doctrinal purity to practical solutions.
If the goal of reaching the UN target is receding, it won’t come any closer by simply demanding that coal stay in the ground. With the threat from climate change as great as greens claim it is, shouldn’t we expect their ideology to yield to experience?
- On March 28, 2018